Drinking Coffee with Canada’s National Mennonite Historical Society

This past weekend, I listened to no less than thirty academic presentations in a space of 2.5 days as Canada’s national Mennonite Historical Society hosted scholars and speakers for the annual Mennonite Studies conference at the University of Winnipeg. For me, to hear Mennonite history treated with academic regard of the highest degree was paradigm shifting. The conclusions of scholars on Mennonites and education, specifically Mennonite girls in education, were especially moving.

If Canadian Mennonite history were a monarchy, then Frank Epp was crowned king by the frequent reference to his contribution to the three-volume work Mennonites in Canada, his daughter Marlene Epp reigning as current monarch, with U of W’s Mennonite Studies chair Royden Loewen acting as lovable prime minister.

It’s been only recently that I’ve come to discover that the idea of a singular “Mennonite identity” is passé, and it was confirmed to me by the conference. The Canadian presenters seemed to take this as a given as they presented deep research showing diversity of expression in Anabaptist identity in Canada since the 1970s. The fact of diversity within Canadian Mennonitism was further supported through Ted Regehr’s opening comments that highlighted that one major change of Anabaptism in Canada since the 1970s is that it is now primarily an urban identity, not a rural one. (In this way, Mennonites in America seem some fifty years behind their northerly neighbors.) I’ll share here some of the emphases of conference topics and research that to me seemed particularly Canadian in flavor.

1. One of the first concerns raised seemed to be that of indigenous issues. Canadian Mennonite scholars were sensitive to the fact that white Mennonite settlers in Canada settled on Native lands, and the conference began with a ceremonial naming of the tribes on whose land rests the University of Winnipeg. Daniel Sims outlined the interaction of Mennonites with Tsay Keh Nay in Ingenika, British Columbia while they squatted on “government” land. One MCC worker spoke about donations at an MCC thrift store being able to be repatriated to First Nations people in Saskatoon. Coupled with this was occasional reflection on the Mennonites’ responsibilities to the 2008 Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with Melanie Kampen asking the question if Canadian Mennonites have fully explored their participation in the cultural genocide of First Nations through residential schools.

2. There were frequent references to Canada’s 1971 induction of a state policy of multiculturalism, which led to (for Mennonites) the creation and promotion of the Manitoba Mennonite Centennial (attended by 70,000) and even government grants for writing the histories that Frank Epp did.

3. Most thrilling of all was my first taste of Canada’s vast archiving of its Mennonite identity. IT IS TO BE RESPECTED. We in the States do not have any sort of Mennonite Historical Society on a national level, and the level of scholarship, documentation, and archival work is simply phenomenal, leading to highly gratifying presentations like that of Laureen Harder-Gissing’s work on Canadian Mennonites at the edge of activism.

  • It was a Canadian Mennonite woman who gained national attention by lobbying (successfully) for less violent scenes in the children’s TV show “Power Rangers” in the 1980s.
  • Mennonites also hopped on the anti-war toys campaign of the 1990s. Ontario Mennonite Fred Snyder bought his local Sears’ entire stock of GI Joe toys on his credit card, and then returned them after Christmas. Sears was forced to return the toys to the manufacturer!

Dr. Janis Thiessen delighted conference-goers with her exposition on John Braun and his Leftist manifesto of the Radical Mennonite Union of the 70s. Hoping to unite the radical Left and Anabaptists, Braun organized and gained funding for a pan-American road trip in which he interviewed Mennonite dissidents along the way, at the same time distributing Leftist propaganda, stopping by the Chicago Mennonite commune that produced the Leftist Mennonite newspaper, the Mennonite Stomach. Thiessen’s research culminated with observations about how the Mennonite Left differed from its nondenominational counterparts. First, there was an intergenerational institutional support in the fact that the older generation indulged Braun, allowing him to create his trip and even agreeing to be interviewed. Second, the Mennonite Left maintained pacifism and the absence of violence, unlike the New Left when they lost out.

4. Another concern to be raised was that of gender – how would Canadian Mennonites include and promote LGBTQ persons within the church, and how did Canadians view the historical contributions of Mennonite women in their respective communities? (Frank Epp’s wife Helen personally reviewed countless national documents in order to find and record every single Mennonite conscripted during the World War. Also, 40% of Mennonite farmers who testified against building a uranium refinery, the El Dorado nuclear site, on Mennonite farmland in Warman, Saskatchewan, in 1980 were women. [They won, incidentally.])

Thus, a theological self-consciousness emerged, along with a call to “change our theology when it hurts others” (which begs the question – what is the definition of theology, and is it so liminal?) This self-consciousness appeared both in relation to gender, but also to ethnicity. For example, Mennonite Brethren folks wondered whether a name-change is in order for the conference, an option for a new name being Evangelical Anabaptist. (One sees how the name is less gendered and less ethnic than Mennonite Brethren). Which actually makes sense given the fact that one researcher pointed out that the Mennonite Brethren church in Quebec is made up of almost entirely non-white immigrants.

The ethnic question was also brought up implicitly by the cultural diversity presentations. For example, how do we account for a Chinese Mennonite Brethren church in Caracas, Venezuela? “That’s so specific,” in the words of Marlene Epp (who was actually describing a cookbook called Friendly Favorites: a Cookbook of Favorite Recipes of Ontario Markham Mennonite Girls Born in 1995, but it nevertheless relates.)

5. Also noticeable was the Mennonite connection to a farming past (and farming future). We heard how Ontario Old Orders responded to the implementation of electric, refrigerated milk tanks. “Can’t use milk cans anymore? We’re moving to Guatemala.” In relation to a change in farming policy, there was, historically, overall, a wide berth of resistance, flexibility, and acceptance. Or as Royden Loewen’s research mused, “Are Canadian Mennonite farmers biotic believers? Or Anabaptist agricultural agnostics?”

6. A purview into contemporary history of Mennonites necessarily reported on Mennonites “Re-Imagining Education,” and it was telling to hear about the move away from Bible schools to Christian universities for the Mennonite Brethren. I tried to remain stoically unemotional when powerhouse Robyn Sneath dusted off her shiny new Oxford doctorate, reporting on forty oral interviews she collected from Lower German Mennonites on their experience with 8th grade public education, and why secondary education seems unobtainable. Further, Janice Harper’s work on the Elmira Life and Work School in Ontario demonstrated to me a flexibility and creativity at the state level to address truancy among conservative Anabaptist who drop out of school after 8th grade. (Among the compromises this Canadian high school made were providing the Mennonites high school segregation at an off-campus location (!) and a work-study option, in which students attend high school one or two days a week, working for a local business for the other three or four days.) The creativity and flexibility demonstrated by the public school board in order to compromise with the religious community in Elmira, Ontario pierced like a neon saber.

But I couldn’t hold back the tears because I was seeing the issues for which I champion every day as an educator discussed in respectful, nuanced ways by national scholars, while feeling the weight of class struggle bind me in solidarity to one Lower German Mennonite girl who solemnly declared when asked if she would ever go to university: “I could never afford it.” While a fog settles over my own educational path, a path of economic resistance, to see my questions legitimized by cutting-edge researchers was paradigm shifting, yet also called into remembrance what Daniel Sims, a Native researcher called for: “No research on us without us.”

Thankfully, every two hours we breaked for coffee and pastries, and I was able to gulp huge breaths of air, and Mennonite big-whigs exchanged my tears for business cards, helpful introductions, and a genuine interest in my conference affiliation because what are you, and would you even consider yourself Mennonite.

7. The last session cast its eye toward the future with talks on Youth & Generation. Gil Dueck’s “Conceptualizing the Millennial: Questions of Theology and Identity” reported that millennials’ questions are not theological in nature, but rather those of identity. A few data points: (1) The 2011 study “Hemorrhaging Faith: Why & When Canadian Young Adults Are Leaving, Staying & Returning to the Church” reported in a weirdly recognizable way that things that keep teenagers from engaging with the church include, for one, not having a meaningful relationship with God (not that teens were able to describe what a meaningful relationship looked like, yet they seemed to be able to feel what it was not). (2) “Identity” is becoming crucially important in emerging adulthood, and the search for identity is continuing quite abnormally into the late 20s and even low 30s. (3) Now, adulthood is about standing alone, rather than accepting role change.

Peter Epp spoke on unbaptized young adults in Mennonite contexts and asked the question, “Why aren’t young people getting baptized?” His named his work “It’s Like Dating Around” because participants in his study equated baptism to marriage, in importance. Since it was a historical conference, Epp was forced to offer objective findings rather than subjective analysis, but it was easy to see how the research pointed to a response. For instance, Epp reported the following concerning unbaptized young adults in Mennonite contexts: (1) To them, baptism requires certainty of belief and changed behavior AND they believe that certainty of belief and changed behavior will be arrived at individually (as in the case of one girl who was waiting to get baptized until she had time to “think really thoughtful thoughts” about what she believed). (2) Secondly, they’ve experienced isolation at church.

If you’re not a historian, feel free to make subjective analysis now.

I worried that a conference of this pace might be tiring, but part of the fun was managing the metacognition of dropping down into a new country… adjusting to signs for “the washroom,” being frowned at for saying, “Yes, sir” (“This is NOT the military!”), noticing uncluttered European-like spaces (a design sense that’s inexplicably un-American), Canadian politeness (could Americans be any more whiny at security), and Canadian forthrightness (especially females). Also the cold. (On a 7o morning, an older conference member announced cheerily, “I walked here, 1.2 miles. Took me twenty minutes. Nice brisk walk.” Another man: “I bike to work. If it’s below -40o, I wear goggles and a face mask. If it’s above -40o, you don’t really need the goggles.”) Have literally never seen an electric hitching post before, in the parking lot, and there was an electric plug sticking out of the hood of the 2018 Dodge Charger we rented. My friend Janae and I dashed out for the most highly rated coffee in Winnipeg, Fools & Horses, and haphazard flakes flittered down lazily, an afterthought in the pink morning sky. (My friend Janae is a chemist, but she graciously accompanied me to the three-day conference, and I think she took more notes than I did!)

 

Winnipeg’s annual Santa Claus parade provided us an hour detour before our final stop: across the Red River is Winnipeg’s French quarter, St. Boniface, and slipping into Promenade, we enjoyed bouef bourguignonne by candlelight, the city lights sparkling on the banks of the river, and we discussed with exuberance our copious notes. Warmed and grateful, I recalled a bit of John Braun’s manifesto as we later stepped out into the night: “Before change, understanding. Before understanding, confrontation. God is alive. Magic is afoot.”

Crypt Lake Trail: Thrill of the Rockies

When my friends and I planned our southern Alberta Rocky Mountain vacation, we were pretty laid-back about which activities to do, except for one: the Crypt Lake Trail. We knew we would be camping at Beaver Mines Lake Campground in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, and we were looking for an epic hike to conquer between kabob-roasting and kayaking. When we heard about the Crypt Lake Hike in Waterton Lakes National Park, we were sold.

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The Crypt Lake Trail was voted “Canada’s Best Hike” in 1982, and National Geographic rated the hike among the top twenty of the “World’s Best Hikes” in the “Thrilling Trails” category in 2014. Note it says world’s best, folks. World’s. This thrill was to be ours.

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What views! Credit: Julia Shank

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What sets the Crypt Lake Trail apart from other hikes is its beauty, its wildlife, and its exciting trail features (guaranteed to get your heart pumping).

B E A U T Y
The 10.8 mile Crypt Lake Trail, featuring a 2300 ft. elevation gain, is accessed by a 15 minute ferry ride across the beautiful Upper Waterton Lake (emerald and shining are two appropriate descriptors here). Some of the trail features include numerous waterfalls, noticeable scenery changes with gains in elevation, and intimate views of the Canadian Rockies.

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A light hail falling on Crypt Lake.
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Our ferry. Credit: Julia Shank
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…Waterfalls along the trail…
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Credit: Julia Shank

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We enjoyed the changes in scenery as we climbed higher into the Rockies. Credit: Julia Shank
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My friend Amy posing with a fun drifty-wood thing. Credit: Julia Shank
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Credit: Amy Gillett

W I L D L I F E
One of the thrilling features of the Crypt Lake Trail is that it is prime bear country. (Thrilling and a little terrifying to this Midwestern flatlander). We also began the hike with the knowledge that a cougar had attacked a teenage girl in Waterton Lakes National Park only just last year. This knowledge made us pretty aware of our surroundings. Not to mention the necessity of letting out a hearty “Hey-o! HEY-o!” everyone now and again, just to let the bears know we were in the neighborhood. (Sort of like ringing their doorbell. They don’t like to be spooked any more than we do.) Besides hollering, we weren’t exactly sure what we would do if we encountered a bear. A grizzled Canadian fisherman we had met the day before when we were kayaking gave us at least one tip: “Back away slowly, and don’t make eye contact.” Alas, we saw no bearkind, but this did not keep the bears from depositing their dung, twice, upon our trail. I mean, they could have pooped anywhere in the forest. But no, they had to do it on the trail. I took this kind of as a hint. “We are leaving this here so that you freak out.” –Bears, pooping. We also saw quite a variety of birds, and even a marmot. On our mid-June hike, mountain wildflowers were blooming, peeking out of their buds, as the last bits of snow melted in the warm summer sun.

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Credit: Julia Shank
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Credit: Amy Gillett
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The trail only opening a week before, we saw traces, yet, of melting snow. Credit: Amy Gillett

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O B S T A C L E S
Perhaps Crypt Lake Trail’s “thrilling” status is due to the various obstacles hikers encounter. Whether it’s crossing a running stream, climbing through a cave, or skirting a cliff while hanging on to a cable, there are many exciting moments. A grown adult man said, “Basically, I got to the point where I just focused on the mountain and did not look down.” A fear of heights is not recommended for this trail.

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Julia crossing a stream. Credit: Amy Gillett
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Approaching the mouth of the cave. Credit: Julia Shank
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Do not look down. Credit: Amy Gillett
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Credit: Julia Shank
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Credit: Amy Gillett
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Only a liiiiittle steep.
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Credit: Julia Shank
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A little windy here! Credit: Julia Shank

Another thrill of the trail is that there is a bit of a time factor. For most of June, only one ferry runs between Waterton and the Crypt Lake trail head, leaving promptly at 10:00 a.m. and returning at 5:30 p.m. My friends and I happened to miss a turn on our way from Beaver Mines to Waterton, leaving us only seven minutes to buy tickets and board the boat! Thankfully, it was early enough in the season that there were still tickets available. When we arrived at the trail head, we re-packed our backpack and took potty breaks near the shore. This meant that our group was the last group to set out (around 10:30). While I enjoyed our solitude at the back of the pack of hikers, I was a little pensive about reaching the summit on time. The hike can take 2.5 to 3 hours one way, not counting hydration breaks and photo shoots, which, for my friends and me were quite numerous. (Our time was 3 hours, 11 minutes.) This left us about 30 minutes at Crypt Lake for lunch, bathroom breaks, and exploring. One gains a little extra time on the descent. Nevertheless, you really don’t want to miss the ferry back to Waterton, unless you’ve packed your down-filled parka, a flashlight, and a bedtime story book. Goldilocks and the Three Bears might be appropriate. The announcer on the ferry had announced as we were approaching the trail head, “We’ll be arriving soon, dropping you off, and picking up whoever didn’t make it back to the boat last night.” We took that to mean: be on time this evening. Anyway, the hiking time is totally doable, but it’s probably best to keep an eye on your watch.

T I P S
Here are some tips to make you fully prepared for the hike.
1. The Waterton Shoreline Cruise’s boatman’s speech is pretty informative. Listen up for history, interesting facts, and pertinent trail advice. He also might allay your fears regarding bears.

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Credit: Julia Shank

2. However, don’t be careless regarding bears. Take bear spray, a form of pepper spray designed for aggressive bears in the wild. The boatman and some other hikers downplayed the possibility of bear sightings, but my friends and I decided we couldn’t be too careful. And the majority of other hikers thought the same. We saw a total of five cans of bear spray among the ranks.
3. Toilet paper. It’s really okay. You can rough it behind that tree.
4. Take enough liquids. We took one water bottle plus one Gatorade per person, stuffing them into a single backpack along with bug spray, sunscreen, ridiculous amounts of trail food, a camera, and flip flops (in case we needed to ford a raging stream). Rushing on to the boat with five minutes to spare, the ferry man looked at our single backpack and asked where our other packs were. “We only have one pack,” we said. He shook his head, “How much water do you have? You should have 3 liters a piece. It’s a warm one out there today.” We ducked our heads and hopped onto the ferry. “Ch. ‘Warm.’” I laughed. “Maybe for Canadians!” Honestly, though, we did find ourselves conserving our water. It would have been best to take a few more bottles with us.
5. Take a watch so that you can keep track of time. I took my fancy runner’s GPS watch which was very useful for keeping track of time and distance.

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Resting hikers eating lunch by Crypt Lake. Credit: Julia Shank

I find that being fully prepared means that you will be better able to enjoy the delights of the trail.

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And this trail affords many: the delicious scent of alpine air, the curious existence of mountain wildflowers, the rushing roar of steep waterfalls, hair-raising moments using the cable on the cliff, warm sun and abrupt clouds, and miles of mountains and scraggy rocks and green trees. If you sometime find yourself in the southern Alberta, I guarantee you won’t regret taking this thrilling hike in the Canadian Rockies.

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Credit: Amy Gillett
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Credit: Julia Shank

In Which I Post Pretty Pictures From My Vacation in the Canadian Rockies

For an end-of-the-teaching-year gift, God wrapped up a package in wind-tousled bows and pine-scented paper, stamped it “Alberta,” and left it at the base of a beautiful mountain. Folks, vacation is good for the soul.

I recently returned from Canada where I spent time camping in the Rocky Mountains and celebrating with friends in the nearby Alberta prairies.

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My first hostess was my beautiful cousin Ginger, who moved to Alberta three years ago from warm southern Virginia. She and her husband graciously hosted me amid moving boxes while introducing me to many interesting Canadian things.

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Did I mention that they roast their own coffee? Ginger’s uncle brings back coffee beans from his trips abroad, and Edward roasts them to perfection. At this house, I drank some of the best coffee I’ve had in years.

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Their darling daughter Addison, who wears her hooded sweater backwards because We Are Two.

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Tried poutine, a wonderful Canadian delicacy: French fries and cheese curds, smothered in gravy. This stomachache is available for purchase at most Canadian restaurants. Yum!

My cousin was also able to get me a tour of a Hutterite colony. Hutterites, a unique religious sect living a communal lifestyle, are quite prevalent in southern Alberta.

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Dining hall: Men sit on the left, women sit on the right at meal times. 110 people live on this colony.

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Part of the *TEN ACRE* garden that the small Hutterite colony farms. The 18-year-old Hutterite tour guide told us, “We have about an acre of garlic, and my dad says that alone is a $45,000 crop.” #wow

For the next portion of my trip, I met up with some of my old Bible School chums for a week of camping and active adventures.

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The characters:
Amy: Canadian. Lover of God, Gage (her husband), cats, coffee, and coulees. Also probably one of the most passionate nurses I know.

Julia: from Virginia, married to Sheldon (who likes to golf). This girl can always make me laugh. She’s funny, friendly, outgoing, and always ready for an adventure. She’s usually singing, and things you might hear her talking about include her family, her church, volleyball, and health. (Did you know that coconut oil is really great on your skin?)

We spent the first two days camping in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. Arriving on a Thursday, we had our pick of choice campsites amid the Canadian pines. Our campsite was a short walk from Beaver Mines Lake. Girl-camping aside, we did not resort to “glamping” or “glamorous camping,” as one might assume. We chopped our own wood and set up our tents and unloaded our own kayaks, thank you very much.

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Kayaing. (And practically posing for National Geographic. Is not this location incredible?)
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Photo credit: Amy Gillett

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Hiking to Crypt Lake, an exciting adventure deserving of its own post, which is forth-coming.

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A steep section of the Crypt Lake hike. Approaching the cave.
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Mountain wildflowers.
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Sitting by the lake at 11:00 p.m. Days are much longer in the North. Photo credit: Amy Gillett
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Chicken kabobs. And magazines.
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Brewing Tim Hortons coffee. Of course. It’s Canada! Photo credit: Amy Gillett
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The view from our campsite.
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These girls tho.
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Posing with wildlife!
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Stupid deer stuck out its tongue at me.

We returned from the Rockies to Lethbridge, a university town in southern Alberta, home to an amazing geographical feature called “coulees.” I describe coulees as inverted hills. The flat Alberta prairie stretches unendingly, then suddenly dips down in these upside-down hills. Some coulees have water flowing through them. They are rather beautiful, and Amy took us on several coulee walks.

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In Lethbridge, Amy also treated us to Spudnuts, donuts made from potato flour. I loved this adorable shop.

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Time at home…

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Getting pretty with Finn, Amy’s (thirsty) 16.8 pound rare white Burmese mountain cat.
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Making Honduran enchiladas with Julia for Amy’s family. Photo credit: Amy Gillett

I’ve never gone on a vacation where I’ve played so many sports. We went kayaking, hiking, walking, swimming, played tennis, and even played a round a golf!

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Hey, I never claimed to be Venus Williams.
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Magrath Golf Club. Amy worked it out so we could get in for free! Hee hee.
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Each golf cart is equipped with an iPad informing you of which hole you’re on, what is par, and any pertinent golfing tips. #Swanky
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Golf class in college really paid off. #not
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So much laughing every day.

The Sunday after camping I commented that all that hiking and mountain air made me feel so good… that I feel like I can truly take a deep breath for the first time in months.

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Last week was an extremely happy trip with life-long friends.

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My heart is full.